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New Orleans is ready for the new season of ‘Tremé

19th April 2011   ·   0 Comments

By Kelly Parker
Contributing Writer

In April 2010, the city of New Orleans celebrated by throwing a different kind of party. Gatherings brought locals together, to watch ‘Tremé’, HBO’s anticipated drama featuring ordinary natives rebuilding their lives after the extraordinary challenges brought on as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

Trombonist Antoine Batiste (portrayed by native son Wendell Pierce) will continue to play on. After garnering favorable reviews from media critics, (and pulling in 1.1 million viewers for its April 11th premiere), the honest but often humorous look at post-Katrina New Orleans will return for a second season of second lines, music, cuisine and chaos.

Though critical acclaim is appreciated, the opinions that may matter most are those from the likely harshest of critics: native New Orleanians.

“I love it,” says native Julie Branden. “I dance when the theme song comes on. The episode when the guys stole the copper took me back. That was a déja vu’ moment. My copper was stolen. In the wake of Katrina, our image was tarnished. Our dirty laundry was blasted across America with all eyes on us. With this show, the public can see the real New Orleans, feel our pain and empathize with us. It showcases how resilient we are.”

“I feel that the response of the city has been basically very positive, but it’s all anecdotal – I don’t know exactly,” co-creator/executive producer Eric Overmyer shrugs. “But I have run into people who have visited here and say they came because of ‘Tremé.’

“And I know that some of the older ladies don’t like all the cussing. We’ve heard that a lot,” Overmyer adds.

“My impression for the most part is that New Orleanians I’ve encountered have liked the show,” senior script editor Lolis Eric Elie said.

Elie, an author and former Times Picayune columnist, believes the show serves as a mirror for New Orleans; not showing the city as others would see it, “but portrays New Orleans as New Orleanians would see it.”

“A big part of what we do, I think, is bring the city together at least on this one screen, in this one context,” Elie says. “Eric (Oyermyer) wrote this brilliant carnival episode last season that dealt with the range of things you might do if you had your own helicopter-you could easily go from uptown to downtown.”

“Another thing that has been very important to me about working on the show is that even great events like the Essence Festival and Jazz Fest, to a significant extent, bring people here to see musicians and performers from other parts of the country. Ninety percent of the folks we have are folks from New Orleans, celebrating this city and its contributions,” he added.

It’s safe to say that Elie’s 2008 documentary, “Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans,” served as a precursor for viewers who are now fans of the HBO series.

“What we didn’t want was to do the usual television thing of having someone from the outside tag along with Big Chief Lambreaux, and say ‘now, tell me what exactly is it you’re doing,’ ” Overmyer said during a panel discussion on the series that took place Wednesday morning, in conjunction with Xavier University’s Communications Week 2011.

“We thought if we’d just followed him in the course of his yearly preparation for Mardi Gras, that gradually people would catch onto it, and if they had further interest in, they’d do that research themselves. The problem with most network television shows-it explains everything to death, because they’re afraid that someone in the audience may not be able to follow.”

The approval of most locals may have much to do with the authenticity of the show, thanks in part to contributions from actors like Pierce and native/author Phyllis Montana LeBlanc and writers like Elie and (City of Refuge and Why New Orleans Matters) author Tom Piazza- a resident since 1994.

“We cast as many locals as we can because the way people talk here is amazing,” Overmyer said. “We have real faces and real characters. We surrounded Clarke Peters (Albert Lambreaux) with real Mardi Gras Indians; and some of them turned out to be pretty good actors as well, so we gave them more lines.”

“I think all of our characters (the Indian chief, the musicians) embrace the wholeness and the essence of New Orleans,” says Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, who returns in Season 2 as Antoine Batiste’s girlfriend, Desiree. “It’s like the roux in gumbo- and I tell people all the time that gumbo without roux is just soup.”

“It doesn’t seem like work-it really doesn’t, because I’m playing a character that’s so much like myself,” LeBlanc adds. (Co-creator) “David Simon wrote that when he saw me in Spike Lee’s (When the Levees Broke), he was transfixed-how I spoke and the things that I said. So he incorporated my personality into the character, Desiree.

“If Antoine does something he has no business, what I’d do to him is the same thing I’d do to my husband,” she jokes.

LeBlanc couldn’t be more excited about Season 2. “The first season introduced you to the characters; everybody got to see who Desiree was and who Antoine Batiste was, and so now they’ve (the show’s creators) delved a little more into our struggles in our own worlds, so to speak.”

The second season goes from Fall 2006 to Spring 2007 and conveys what was different in the city during that time period than in the first year.

At Wednesday’s discussion, Overmyer didn’t go into specifics regarding storylines, but did mention the show will explore the areas of (the return) of crime, changes in the public school system, developers and planning and how it affects the show’s characters.

The show’s success has also helped the city solidify its position as the core of Hollywood South, providing a much needed economic boost, post Katrina.

“Any film crew puts money into the local economy, in terms of vendors and jobs.” Overmyer says. We’re here from October to May, so though I don’t know the exact figures, I think we have made a beneficial impact economically.”

“Season 2 of Tremé has a budget of $22 Million”, according to Director of Film New Orleans (Mayor’s Office of Cultural Economy), Katie Gunnell. “That is the direct spending of dollars by the production in New Orleans. The state offers a tax credit of 30% on all Louisiana expenditures and an additional five percent for local hires. At this point, the ‘Tremé’ crew is well over 80% local.”

Despite its success, Tremé’ did experience some growing pains, according to Overmyer. The show also chose to cast Deacon John as a fictional character, who later dies in the story. “We realized we could never use Deacon John as a musician,” he said.

Now, musicians like Coco Robichaux, John Boutte, Kermit Ruffins and the Rebirth Brass Band will play themselves.

“Early on we made some mistakes; assuming that musicians were getting paid when we were using their songs, when in fact somebody else was getting paid, so we’re trying to be very careful about that,” Overmyer adds. “It’s a sad and familiar story-many of them have signed away their rights and in some cases, have been in long litigation with publishers to get what is rightfully theirs. When it works the way we want it to, they (musicians) do get paid both for appearing in the show and for their compositions. The show is about the culture and it wouldn’t exist without the musicians. Whenever we can, we ask if they have one of their compositions that they own the rights to that they might like to play.”

Though local producer Earl Scioneaux believes area musicians weren’t shown much love initially, he hopes “Tremé’s” showcase of local talent can set the stage for a paradigm shift.

“There was a representative from ‘Tremé’ speaking at the Sync Up music business conference last year that explicitly said “Please don’t send us your music. We’ve got it covered,” Scioneaux, who runs Big Easy Productions, told The Louisiana Weekly.

“‘Tremé’ has, on the positive side, gotten a lot of positive attention and renewed respect for the incredibly talented music community in New Orleans. If handled correctly, this could be a windfall of opportunity. ‘Tremé’ has set the wheels in motion. Whether it builds steam into something that flourishes, or whether it fizzles as a momentary anomaly is up to us, the musicians and the New Orleans music business community. People here were rarely motivated to try to change anything. Lately, though, there’s been a spark of innovation and ambition in this city. I hope this is a case where we can see that shine through.”

Donn Chandler of Richmond, Va became a fan of the show quickly, and believes it can only be the start of a new beginning for New Orleans. “I’ve visited the city once since the storm, but I know I’ll make more visits because of the things I’ve seen from the show. This can only help residents see the potential New Orleans has to be greater than before and work toward that goal. I’ve always enjoyed the city, but I didn’t expect to get drawn in by watching the show. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen about a city.”

Overmyer, a part-time New Orleans resident since 1989, is not overly concerned about connecting with viewers outside the Crescent City.

“We don’t spend a lot of time thinking ‘How are we going to explain this?’; sometimes we do things that are strictly for New Orleanians and we know nobody outside the city is going to understand what we’re talking about or what that references to-but that’s okay, it’s part of the texture of the show.”

“I feel the writers are staying true to the struggles of all the people in New Orleans,” Phyllis Montana Leblanc told The Louisiana Weekly. “It’s not geared toward one class or race of people; it’s covering the full spectrum of the city-everything that you’ve possibly seen or heard, or been through yourself; they’re staying very true to it; and with Lolis Elie, who wrote for the Times-Picayune as a writer, you know he’s going to keep it real.”

Elie knows of the expectations that come with his position, but embraces the opportunity; one that many local writers only dream about.

“This is parallel to what I did at the Times-Picayune, in the sense that I was visible, and represented the paper only to people who knew of me; but I just deal with it-I’m glad to be able to do it. The price I have to pay is every now and then someone might get a little mad at me; that’s not a problem-I’m enjoying it overall.”

Overmyer states that the crew has consultants on hand to help the authenticity of the show, even down to the smallest of cultural nuances and details.

“In a script that I’m working on, I have a character mentioning (Dooky Chase’s) and several people said to me, ‘No, nobody ever says that-just say Dooky Chase.’ And that’s good,” he says. “That’s why we have a lot of people weighing in. Now, that’s not something people outside New Orleans cares about, but it’s something New Orleanians care about-and we care about.”

“I think one of the things I appreciate about ‘Tremé’ is that they touch on a lot of the city’s stereotypes and they clear them.” says Latasha Smith, a native and mass communications student at Xavier.

Smith wasn’t an immediate fan, but the show has grown on her. “The very first episode was a little fuzzy, maybe because of the way it started,” she says. “But after a few episodes, everything came into perspective.”

Lolis Eric Elie believes, like many novels, the language of “Tremé” is not a barrier once you get into it.

“You have to get into the world of Treme’ and if you follow the story and if you’re interested in the characters, then you’ll go along with them on their ride.”

The journey continues as Season 2 premieres Sunday, April 24, on HBO, 9 p.m. CST.

NOTE: Lolis Elie is the writer and narrator of “Faubourg Tremé.” The film was directed, however, by Dawn Logsdon. This story originally published in the April 18, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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